Remi Kanazi: How art defies oppression
Remi Kanazi is a writer, poet and organizer whose work blends art, culture and activism. His newest book of political poetry is Before the Next Bomb Drops: Rising Up from Brooklyn to Palestine (2015), but Kanazi is more than just a poet: his political commentary has been featured in the New York Times, Salon, Al-Jazeera English and BBC One. He is also on the advisory committee for the Palestinian Campaign for the Economic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Some of his poems have been performed and recorded on film and can be watched on YouTube. Kanazi is a first-generation Palestinian American whose parents were forced to leave their lands during the 1948 creation of Israel, a trauma that Palestinians around the world refer to, to this day, as Al Nakba, "The Catastrophe."
Summit (S): What is it about poetry that has the power to reach people in ways that other writing cannot?
Remi Kanazi (RK): I became a poet after I saw poetry performed live. I felt that the way in which spoken word provided a space to say things in a non-constricting way was really liberating and led to a lot of introspection. So as I went through my own political activism trajectory, I felt that spoken word was the best avenue that I could take a political message through. So, rather than writing an op-ed, I felt that poetry best suited my creativity. I felt like poetry was a tool that I found some comfort in and some ability to process in ways that I didn’t in other mediums. I understood the power of spoken word as well as the strengths of my own creativity and the two fit better than anything I’ve tried thus far.
S: Can you talk a little about your political development growing up in Massachusetts and then moving to New York City?
RK: My parents and grandparents are refugees from 1948; my grandmother was pregnant with my mom when they were kicked out of Jaffa. My father’s family is from Haifa-Nazareth and he was 2 years old when they fled. So there was a certain reality that my family faced: one of expulsion, one of exile, one of a desire for return. I grew up in a small town that was predominantly white, feeling like a fish out of water, being a brown kid, going to Catholic school and trying to navigate that space, along with all of the realities that go along with being a kid growing up in the 1980s. I didn’t have a politicized youth, because this was my family’s reality. This is something that scarred; this is something that lived with my mother and father. Until my grandmother’s dying day, everything was Jaffa—it was always about return. She never felt at home in Lebanon, she never felt at home in the United States, and that is something that is felt by millions of Palestinians.
But I actually grew up wanting to assimilate and to run away from that past—whether it was the language or the culture—because it was seen as foreign. Some folks have a family that goes back to where they’re from every summer and, because I didn’t have that experience, I kind of ran away from my family’s own experience. And yet, that was the first thing I came back to.
I moved to New York City four months before 9/11. I was already getting into leftist politics, and I was delving back into my family’s history in a more politicized way: rather than just a family story, it was also an experience that was felt by 750,000 other people in 1948. It was the destruction of 531 villages, it was the situation on the ground today. Then 9/11 happened. And when those two towers came down, there was so much vitriolic language, and I didn’t know how to respond to anti-Palestinian racism, anti-Arab racism, anti-Muslim racism. So I started reading everything that I could, from Palestinian intellectuals like Edward Said, to anti-war historians like Howard Zinn, to prison abolitionists like Angela Davis; and I actually started writing about Middle East politics before I became a poet.
Then, in 2004, my brother and sister took me to see “Def Poetry Jam” on Broadway; that was the first time I saw Suheir Hammad—a brilliant Palestinian American poet—perform live, as well as people like Staceyann Chin: folks that weren’t necessarily saying the word “Palestine,” but who were talking about social justice, who were talking about the politicization of struggles, whether it’s oppression in South Africa or the southern United States, police brutality and white supremacy, the prison-industrial complex or Transphobia. So going from this enclosed, little, unfortunately racist bubble in small-town America to a city of more than nine million people where you can connect and build with a huge diversity of people that maybe don’t understand your exact experience, but who understand a range of oppressions that complement each other and profit off one another, was huge for my own growth.
S: How does art blend together or complement organizing strategies?
RK: Whether you’re looking at Algeria, Ireland, the South and resistance movements today from Black Lives Matter to Palestine organizing, art is always part of the fabric of the struggle. Spoken word is a way to get a political message across through a cultural medium. I try to think about how I can use my art to challenge, to advocate, to energize and to hopefully get people to act. My work is an intersecting of the power of art and the power of organizing, because I don’t think we can compartmentalize the different aspects of who we are. Yes, I’m a poet, yes I’m a Palestinian, yes I’m an organizer; but I’m all of these things all at once.
S: The power and emotion you generate with your words and performance is striking. Have you ever had a tough time performing any of your poems?
RK: You can write a poem about not becoming desensitized to a bomb dropping and yet, within your own performance work, you’re trying to tease out this emotional energy and you don’t want to become desensitized to your own poem. So, it’s about reconfiguring or recapturing and manifesting the emotion that made you write that poem to begin with. There are times when you can’t get into the pocket of a particular stanza, and there are other times when you’re really just feeling it—whether because of crowd energy that can feed you, or because you take a few moments of reflection before you begin the poem.
S: I noticed that you do that.
RK: Yeah, I tend to do that a lot because it helps to get me into, not just the rhythm of the piece, but the emotional rhythm as well. Sometimes I’ll do a poem and it just really hits every stanza, and almost happens effortlessly, and other times I’ll struggle to find the creative energy within the poem.
As a poet, you’re essentially taking really dense ideas and presenting them in a truncated form. I incorporate a lot of jokes, a lot of banter, stories and prefaces in between the poems. I have this audience for 45 minutes, so what do I really want them to take away and learn from this experience? If you can even get two or three people to the next general body meeting of a Students of Justice in Palestine chapter, your job is done for the day. It’s the culmination of those minor, galvanizing moments that I think make all the difference in the world. And I think that’s one of the reasons the discourse is changing in Palestine: once you win someone over, you don’t have to win them over again.
One of the biggest things we have to overcome is not simply right-wing racism and government policies, but apathy. A lot of people are turned away; they don’t really know the situation. I think that educationcan really lead to action. If I could knock on every door in the United States, I wouldn’t get everyone on board, but when you look at the polls—18–30-year-olds, women, black folks—you are seeing a change in the conversation on Palestine.
S: How do we overcome that apathy?
RK: You have options: it’s not simply about recognizing your position within society, it’s about challenging those dominant structures. Whether it’s organizing divestment on campus, whether it’s working within your labor union, whether it’s de-shelving a product that profits off of occupation, there are a lot of ways in which we can engage. And then, beyond that, challenging the dominant media landscape and structure.
I really do think that if we want to see change on the issue of Palestine, we also need to be fighting for fundamental change within our societies. I live in New York City where five million people have been stopped and frisked, the vast majority of them black and latino; I live in the U.S. where there are racist drug laws, mandatory minimums and where black men and women are executed by a militarized police force with no trial. So in the same breath that I’m saying “end the occupation,” I have to be saying “end mass incarceration;” in the same breath that I’m saying “boycott, divestment and sanctions,” I have to be saying “divest from prisons.” When I say “we need to be challenging Israeli oppression,” I also have to be at a Black Lives Matter rally, I also have to be standing with undocumented communities, I also need to be challenging Transphobia. If Palestine is liberated tomorrow, but 2.3 million people are still in prison, then what kind of liberation is that?
But you have to shock people out of apathy. People need to realize that the $2.1 million a year we’re spending to put a soldier in Afghanistan is very intimately linked to the stripping away of healthcare and social security and these societal safety nets. You don’t have to go overseas to see militarism at play; we can look within our own neighborhoods. People can barely survive on minimum wage jobs now. You have kids coming out of college and living in their parents’ basement and can barely pay back the minimum on their student loans. This right-wing structure affects a hell of a lot of people. So we need to build a strong left within our communities. You have to slowly build this kind of wave of momentum through organizing, and then people will eventually come along with it.
S: In coalition building, you say one has to be wary of “flattening struggle,” and that the organizing needs to remain “rooted, positive and substantive.” How do you navigate that?
RK: Right, so people have asked if I’m going to write a poem about Hawai‘i. One of the things I try to tackle in the book is the idea of appropriation and conflict voyeurism. I think that being cognizant and aware of what’s going on around us, injecting a bit of nuance, is a good thing. The poetry is meant to say, “Israel is implementing a system of oppression and we should be challenging it; prisons are fundamentally systems of violence and racism and we should be challenging that.” When we are standing against systems of oppression overseas—or in Hawai‘i—we need to be very conscious, within our own organizing spaces, that we’re not reaffirming those systems.
I can have the greatest politics on paper, and I can say all of the right things, but I also have to do the right things. And it’s not to say that we won’t make mistakes, and it’s not meant to clamp down or judge or castigate or excommunicate anyone who says one thing wrong. These are real structures of domination that are affecting real human beings. We need to keep that in the forefront of our minds and not become desensitized to our own poetry, or to strip away the names and faces and histories and realities that actual human beings are going through.
For me, the kind of connection that comes from building within communities over the years is what’s important. If you look at the longer history of the black-Palestinian solidarity movement, it goes back to Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, and to material support from the Palestinian Liberation Organization for the African National Congress in South Africa. That’s the foundation for the Dream Delegation’s visit to Palestine, for Palestinian-Americans to stand shoulder to shoulder with black activists in Ferguson. I don’t want the police state to stop executing black people because that’s beneficial to Palestine. I want them to stop executing black people because it’s wrong.
S: What is your vision for achieving true democracy and equality in the Israel-Palestine region?
RK: Occupation is, itself, a collective form of violence. And people are fed up with it. There are different ways in which challenging occupation is manifested. Is that going to lead to an uprising of Palestinians taking to the streets? I don’t have the crystal ball. But what I will say is that Israel is putting something into place that is not tenable. Palestinians know it, Israelis know it. The Palestinian community is segregated and marginalized and living under second class status inside the state of Israel. How that shifts, when it shifts, what form it takes, how clean or messy that process is—I don’t have the answers. But the final outlook can’t be anything but a liberated society: it has to be without the structures of occupation and Apartheid; it has to be through decolonization; it has to be a situation where one people isn’t dominating another.
One hope that Israel has always had is this old notion that “the old will die, and the young will forget.” Well the young haven’t forgotten; they’re not letting go; they have a boot on their neck and a pistol in their face and they still rise up every single day.
I often say that the one-state solution itself is a compromise. Palestinians aren’t saying “go back to where you came from.” Palestinians aren’t saying “we want to rule over you now.” But you have to take away the structures of domination already in place. And while some people think and hope those structures can last in perpetuity, that system is going to see its final day.
S: What advice do you have for young artists about the power of art to make social change?
RK: I always say that the best poetry is honest poetry, and the best art is honest art. It’s not just about what will get you the most applause. It’s about what you’re saying with your art and what that instills in others. So keep doing what inspires you and keep sharing it with your community and try to figure out spaces and ways that you can get your work out there in ways that uplift you.